A poached Amur tiger found during a Zoological Society of London anti-poaching campaign
Deep in Russia's Far East lives the Amur tiger, the largest cat in the world. Also known as the Siberian tiger for the feline's home range, the tigers are magnificent creatures that can top out at nearly 700 pounds, with thick coats designed to protect against harsh winters.
Unfortunately for the cats, those coats are prized by humans, and according to the latest poaching statistics, more than 20 Amur tigers have likely been killed so far this year. That might not sound like a whole lot, but it most definitely is when there are only a few hundred of the endangered cats left.
According to the International Fund for Animal Welfare's (IFAW) Russian arm, at least 21 Amur tigers have been killed this year. That estimate is based on a survey of sales involving tiger skins, bones and parts, and even live cubs on the Russian internet. (As you may recall, the internet is a major part of the illegal wildlife trade.) The use of internet sales statistics to extrapolate poaching pressure is pretty novel, although it does have a margin of error—skins, at least, are fairly easily resold, and don't necessarily represent an animal poached this year.
Seized tiger pelts, via the IFAW
However, the estimate does fall in line with other estimates that peg the total poaching haul of Amur tigers at between 30 and 40 per year. As RIA Novositi notes, the IFAW's figure is backed up by WWF Russia figures released earlier this year, which stated that Russian authorities "confiscated the skeletons and body parts from at least 19 dead tigers in 2012-2013 and launched seven criminal cases against tiger poachers and traders."
The IFAW also notes that, aside from pets and rugs for Russia's wealthy, the tigers are also prized for use in traditional Chinese medicine. China is essentially the world's clearinghouse for dead tigers, and demand is high enough that tiger farming is prevalent, and that demand also fuels poaching of every extant tiger subspecies.
“As long as the demand for tiger bones, whiskers and hides exists, poachers would treat fines and other risks just as costs of doing business,” said Maria Vorontsova, IFAW's regional director for Russia, in the release. “Although the authorities toughened punishments and made poaching of rare animals a criminal offense, such cases are being referred to court only sporadically.”
For a creature as rare as it is, these levels of sustained poaching constitute the tigers' most existential threat, especially considering their habitat in Siberia and Russia's Far East remain relatively undeveloped. The IUCN puts the population at just 360, while other estimates range as high as 450. As low as they are, those numbers are an improvement over the subspecies' historic low of around 20 to 30 individuals in the 1930s.
That comeback has been fueled by a Russian ban on hunting, as well as consistent and aggressive efforts to identify and stop poachers with camera trap programs. As National Geographic explained in a great piece recently, Amur tigers also had the benefit of being the first tiger subspecies to have their genome sequenced, which may help conservation efforts by guiding breeding efforts.